January 22, 1879, was the first major encounter in the Anglo-Zulu War between the British and the Zulu kingdom in South Africa. The battle took place in a remote area of the Natal province called “Isandlwana.” Isandlwana is remembered as the worst single defeat in British military history in terms of percentage. Surrounded and attacked by nearly 20,000 Zulu warriors, nearly all of the 1,800 British defenders were massacred. Armed mainly with assegais (the Zulu short stabbing spear), the Zulus literally overwhelmed the Britsh. The reasons for defeat? The British – led by the inept Lord Chelmsford – upon arrival at Isandlwana with about 10,000 troops – refused to “laager” (circle the wagons) or entrench (as was normally required). Why? Chelmsford severely underestimated Zulu capabilities.
Shortly after arrival at Isandlwana, Chelmsford marched off with nearly all of his troop “looking for Zulus.” Meanwhile, the entire Zulu nation was just over a hill. Waiting. Watching. Chelmsford left the similarly inept Col Anthony Durnford in charge of the remaining soliders. Durnford – with a bare 1,800 men – set a sparsley-defended perimeter nearly a mile out from the camp. And when the 20,000 Zulus attacked, they quickly knifed through the perimeter and set upon the camp. Durnford never gave the order to “strike the tents” (in other words, pull down the center pole of the hundreds of tents so that clear vision of the terrain could be had). Thus the battle raged around canvas tents. And there is rumor that a curmudgeonly quartermaster refused to pass out ammunition (“I have no orders to give out ammunition“) even though the Zulus were pouring through the lines and the encampment.
It is clear that the British underestimated the Zulu capabilities. And this gave rise to the major military disaster where only a hundred or so British soldiers barely escaped with their lives. The few who escaped raced in all directions. Many raced in the direction of Rorke’s Drift. . . . .